In Search of a Word : Limited Government versus ‘Anarchy’

by Spencer H. MacCallum
Number 82 – Oct 1996

Bumper Hornberger, once remarked in a letter to me that in early life he had called himself an “anarchist” but that now he endorsed the concept of “limited government.” He indicated he’d had many discussions leading to his change of mind, discussions that had pretty thoroughly covered the field, he felt, and now he wanted to put his attention elsewhere. I was puzzled but didn’t pursue it, as Bumper hadn’t invited me to and, in any case, I had no wish to divert his attention from the demands of the Future of Freedom Foundation which he and Richard Ebeling were just getting well launched.

What Bumper’s discussions covered I may never know, but the value of holding the ideal of a “total alternative” to political government, as Baldy Harper, founder of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, once put it to me, seems so profound, as well as wholly unobjectionable, that I feel not so much an obligation as an aesthetic resolve to marshal some thoughts on the matter.

As prelude to the discussion, however, let me put forth one fact that doesn’t enter into the argument but that is not irrelevant, either. Many people are now of the opinion that it has been demonstrated both practically and theoretically that taxation, however commonly indulged in, is unnecessary at the local community level. This lack of any compelling need for taxation was shown practically by the experience of the two English “Garden Cities,” Letchworth and Welwyn (described in my article in Reason, April 1972), and by developments in real-estate in this country which I documented in The Art of Community (Institute for Humane Studies 1970). As to theory, the proposition has been exhaustively analyzed by economist Fred Foldvary in his Public Goods and Private Communities: The Market Provision of Social Services (Edward Elgar 1994). This raises an interesting question. If it doesn’t offend either experience or reason to contemplate altogether voluntary alternatives to the present political administration of community services at the local level, are such alternatives not conceivable at all levels of society? For those who are inclined to say categorically no, the challenge for them is to identify where the line shall be drawn. If on some scale private alternatives are both possible and practical, at what scale do they cease being so, and why? The prospect of mankind outgrowing government as we know it, i.e. financed by non-market means, can no longer be dismissed as pure fantasy.

To elaborate just a little further: if proprietary administration of common services works in a regional mall, which is a real community of landlord and merchant tenants representing a kaleidoscopic play of differing interests and views, then it might work as well on a somewhat larger scale, as in a “new town,” which can be a complex of residential, commercial and industrial uses. In fact, we find that it does, as in the British cities of Letchworth and Welwyn and as approximated in Disney World in Florida. And if it works now on the scale of neighborhood and town, might it not ultimately work on a broader scale through towns and proprietary regional associations cooperating. In principle, is there any point on a graduated scale of size that we can point to and say, at this point proprietary administration can no longer work; at this point we must embrace political administration? Is there any place we can draw a line and reasonably defend our decision?

The plain fact is that we do not know and cannot know what the future holds. But from what is already known, we cannot reasonably rule out the possibility that social evolution will continue and that entrepreneurial provision of our common services will evolve even as free-market means of feeding, clothing, sheltering and getting ourselves about have evolved in the last 300 years.

With that background, let’s now come to the question of limited government versus anarchy and which term, if either, a thinking person could adopt as his philosophical badge. (And so as not to let it cloud our minds, let’s try to leave out of account the fact that anarchy, as popularly understood, is a pejorative term, bringing to mind images of terrorism.) Baldy Harper, Leonard Read’s first associate at FEE and later founder of the Institute for Humane Studies, looked at it in a way that I find attractive. He had no more idea than the man in the moon whether we or our descendants will ever actually see a “total alternative,” as he put it, to political, tax-supported-government. But he pointed out the importance of holding the ideal clearly in mind as a heuristic device and a compass to help us keep moving always in the direction of freedom. The analogy he used was that of the north star and the mariner who steers by it. The mariner doesn’t expect to reach the star. But, steering by it, which is a process entailing innumerable small decisions and self-corrections, not one of which he could make without the star, he eventually reaches Liverpool. We need a transcendent ideal always in mind, Baldy would say, to help guide our everyday decisions that determine whether or not we keep on our heading toward freedom.

That’s why I’m less than fully satisfied with the ideal of “limited government.” Whether mankind will ever regain the completely free society we know he enjoyed at the pre-state level, where the authority of the village headman was the same in kind i.e. authority over his person and property and not that of anyone else, as that exercised by the poorest member of the village, it will probably not be for you or me to know. But while we live, let perfect liberty be our guiding star.

The “limited government” concept cannot serve reliably as a guiding star because it is relative; any government at virtually any time or place in the world is limited with respect to some other government, real or imagined, that might be named. So we must ask, limited by comparison with what? The same criticism is often leveled at the label “conservative.” Conserving what? Neither of those two could serve as a north star to keep us to a true heading toward a totally voluntary society, which heading may or may not be asymptotic. So Baldy Harper was an idealist, for the most practical of reasons.

My grandfather, Spencer Heath (1876-1963), a close friend of Baldy Harper, was likewise a practical man. He had not one but a series of successful careers, engineering, law, manufacturing (his plants in Baltimore turned out more than three-quarters of the propellers used by the Allies in World War I), and horticulture. Finally, at age 55, he retired to his country place outside of Baltimore and for the next 30 years devoted himself entirely to philosophy, primarily with reference to science and society. I am currently collecting and organizing his papers for publication on CD-ROM. In the course of this work recently, I came across the following paragraphs which bear on the point of this discussion.

Every thoughtful individual entertains ideals of goodness, truth and beauty, absolutes towards which he can move and aspire but which his own limitations forbid him ever fully to attain. And these conceptual absolutes are no less valuable for their being only relatively and never absolutely attainable. They afford no final goals, but they do establish the directions in which the affairs of men can lead them into endless yet never perfect realizations of their hopes and dreams.

It is the same with the institutions of men. Unless they are ideally conceived as moving towards absolute and hence unattainable goals, there is no ideal guidance, no certain direction, for limited yet ever-expanding achievement towards absolute ideals.

This power of conceiving ideals, this subjective conceptual capacity that knows no limitations or bounds, this power of conceiving the Absolute as God, is what distinguishes the spiritual, the creative, from the merely animal, the unregenerate man. This unlimited power to dream, this inspiration of the Divine is the key to man’s creative power.

Elsewhere he was even more pointed:

Practical considerations forbid that we should look on these (or any) ideal conceptions as goals or end conditions completely attainable in themselves. Their vast value lies not in their attainment but in their orientation of our energies consistently in the direction of these ultimate ideals.

Bumper, are you listening? If so, help me find a better word than “anarchist” (it repels me as being sterile and negative) or a briefer way of stating Baldy Harper’s position. Baldy didn’t have an all-encompassing word, but he wasn’t beating any drums for government, limited or otherwise. He would explain, without any flap about it, that he was drawn to the vision of a “total alternative” and was always on the lookout for breakthroughs in thinking and social technology that might move us in that direction.